I don’t like sardines as a rule.
I grew up knowing sardines as those greasy little fish-like things that were crammed into flat tins whose lids you folded back in a roll. The tins were filled with stinky oil and the sardines were prised out to be spread onto toast.
The skin, bones, tiny sardine-heads and tiny sardine-tails were easily mashed into a barely edible paste that you applied thickly to the toast, mixing it with the butter, then you quickly took a bite and gulped it down before the smell and the whole idea of it induced you to regurgitate it for a second look.
The notion of eating a tiny oily fish which you exhume from a crypt-like tin is not appealing to an Aussie. We like our fish big, fresh, and covered in fried batter. We don’t eat steak from a tin. We don’t eat lamb from a tin. Why should we eat fish from a tin?
Also, tiny anything doesn’t appeal to us. Look at the rock in the middle of our country. It’s not tiny.
And as Crocodile Dundee so famously said: “That’s not a knife… THIS is a knife!”
So I would say of a sardine: That’s not a fish…. THIS is a fish.
(Yes, we happen to have the biggest Great White Sharks in the world in our waters…)
It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that I saw real sardines in a fish market. They didn’t look anything like the sardines I knew. They were larger, fat, and although they were still small, they at least looked like proper fish.
Still, I had no desire to cook them up. They were faux-fish. Like white-bait. I don’t trust a fish you can eat in one bite. You might inadvertently eat its genitalia. In my quest for food experiences, I have to draw the line somewhere. I need to scale and gut my fish before I eat them. How can you scale and gut a sardine? You have to eat it in its entirety – scales and guts and genitalia and all.
My attitude to sardines changed however when years later, someone told me of how they’d spent glorious sun-filled afternoons in small exotic restaurants on the beaches of North Portugal, eating … yes… grilled sardines. Fresh, straight from the seas. Washed down with delicious Portuguese wines.
Based on that romantic vision, I was prepared to give sardines a second chance.
I later discovered that the region is famous for its sardines, so when I went to North Portugal recently, I kept an eye out for a restaurant with the faux-fish on the menu. But all the restaurants seemed geared towards its other famous regional food – grilled chicken.
It wasn’t until my last day in Portugal, when I went down to the port district of Porto, that I stumbled upon the King of Grilled Sardines restaurant.
I’d been checking out hotels in the area, prepping a Camino Tour I’m leading next year, and the guy on the front desk of a hotel directed me towards the district’s “eat street.” He said that’s where people came from Porto if they wanted a great seafood meal.
The area is called Matosinhos – it’s well off the tourist trail, and you need to take a 40 minute train from Central Porto to get there. It’s where the fishermen dock, it’s where they sell their catches in the markets, and it’s where you’ll find some of Portugal’s great seafood restaurants.
What makes them so good? The fish are literally straight off the boats. And these restaurants aren’t fancy establishments with huge prices – they’re little hole-in-the-wall joints that cater largely to the local workers. It’s hard to spend more than β¬10 on a meal.
I followed the directions the hotel guy gave me, and of course I got lost. (How am I going to lead a tour next year??) He’d given me the name of particular restaurant that he’d recommended, and even with the aid of his front desk map, I couldn’t find it. But I rounded a corner and I spotted something which immediately got my restaurant-radar twirling.
Diners sitting at small tables outside in the sun. Even at 3pm on a weekday, it was crowded. It’s like trucks filling parking lots outside roadhouses – I veer towards restaurants that are full. Conversely I stay away from restaurants that are empty.
I wandered over.
Many of the diners were finishing up. I was seated, somewhat brusquely, and I wasn’t even given a menu. Because there was only one thing everyone was eating –
I ordered a bottle of Vinho Verde – the Portuguese “Green” wine renown in that part of the world – and waited for my 12 sardines to arrive.
I’d ordered 12 sardines because I was hungry. And I assumed they’d be small. Also, I’ve never met a fish that got bigger with grilling. They get smaller. So 12 sardines seemed about right.
After a short wait the plate came out – but they must have got my order wrong because I only got 6 sardines.Β I didn’t care. Because they were massive. The fishermen must put steroids in the waters off Portugal, because these weren’t the sardines I knew – not even the ones I’d seen in markets. There were real fish.
They’d been grilled to perfection, covered in freshly aromatic olive oil, and crusted with salt. I poked at them with my fork. I was looking for their genitals. The sardines hadn’t been gutted or scaled – but they looked so damn delicious that I took a deep breath and barreled in anyway.
With the fork I separated the flesh from the spine. The white fish-meat came away effortlessly, which told me this was a very fresh sardine. Like, just-caught fresh. I scooped the fish up – and it melted in my mouth.
This was unlike any fish I’d ever eaten.
The white flesh tasted of the sea, the olive oil tasted of sunlit hills, the crunchy grilled skin tasted of brine and wind-whipped white caps. It was sublime. I ate the head, I ate the tail, I left the genitals.
Very soon the 6 sardines were finished.
My empty plate was immediately whipped away, replaced by a second plate of 6 sardines. The restaurant had broken my order down into two servings so that the 2nd serving would come out straight off the grill, just as the first had.
Total cost? β¬12 – one euro per sardine.
I went inside to see the kitchen. The kitchen was simply a grill, fired by wood. There was an open window nearby, and I noticed that fishermen would regularly arrive with a box of freshly-caught sardines, which they’d pass through the window to the cooks. They’d then take them directly from the box and put them on the grill.
You can’t get fresher than that.
I returned to Australia with a new-found respect for the much maligned sardine.
Sardines should not be judged by their tinned compatriots. You’ve not experienced sardines until you’ve sat in a shack of a joint down by the water in North Portugal, sipping Green Wine in late afternoon sunshine, crunching down on a small grilled fish which only that morning was swimming gayly towards Africa.
Now THAT’S a sardine!